Thirty members of the Boise Hawks baseball team will be dressed in the same gray-colored uniforms tonight when they play the Tri-City Dust Devils in Pasco, Wash.
But only one of the visitors will have the name of his hometown inscribed across his chest — Gary Van Tol.
For the past four years, Van Tol has had the unique opportunity to help coach his hometown minor league baseball team, the Boise Hawks.
“Gary’s extremely vital to the success of what we’re doing in Boise,” said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs vice president of player personnel. “He’s one of those guys that no job is too small.”
Van Tol holds many of the same duties as any coach in the Cubs minor league system. He was with the team at spring training in Mesa, Ariz., and has been with the Hawks throughout the Northwest League season. He throws batting practice before games, oversees the team’s infielders, coaches first base during games and charts the play of catchers from the dugout as the team’s bench coach.
“He wears a lot of hats,” Fleita said. “He’s gone above and beyond.”
Van Tol is one of three coaches on manager Mark Johnson’s staff, joining pitching coach David Rosario and hitting coach Desi Wilson. But unlike any other full-time coach in the Cubs’ minor leagues, Van Tol is not paid to do the job.
Instead, he volunteers his time and 20-plus years of playing and coaching experience in the game to help out.
“The opportunity to learn, to work with these guy, it’s like anything,” Van Tol said. “It’s like an internship.”
Johnson said Van Tol is treated like any other coach on his staff, and he receives the same respect from players.
“He’s a huge help all the way around for the staff and for the guys,” Johnson said. “And he does it on his own, which is pretty amazing. He just loves the game and it shows.”
Not anybody can walk off the street and coach at the professional level. Van Tol offers 20 years of coaching experience as a head coach at Centralia (Wash.) Community College (1995) and Treasure Valley Community College (1997-2001), along with several stints as an assistant coach at Gonzaga University and Portland State University.
He also played on Canada’s national team in the 1992 Pan Am Games and spent two seasons playing professionally in Holland.
Along with his duties with the Hawks, Van Tol keeps busy working as an associate scout for the Cubs, coaches a team each fall with select high school players from around the state, the Idaho Cubs, and runs player camps and coaching clinics.
He’s also a stay-at-home dad.
Van Tol and his wife, Christina, have four children: Gehrig, 12, a Hawks batboy; Amaia, 10; Peyton, 6; and Gibson, 3.
Christina, a Parma High graduate and daughter of longtime educators in the district, is the senior associate director for student services at Boise State.
Christina and Gary Van Tol both worked at their alma mater in 2008, when Christina was offered her job at Boise State. Christina worked in the Gonzaga athletic department and Gary was the Bulldogs’ head assistant baseball coach.
Gary Van Tol said after his wife followed him from city to city for job promotions through the years, it was time he did the same for her.
The move back to Boise also meant Van Tol would be able to return to Memorial Stadium. He was a volunteer coach with the Hawks during the 2001 and 2002 seasons.
“I think he feels extremely blessed and fortunate to do that,” Christina Van Tol said. “I think for him, baseball is not a job, it’s a passion. I think he has a true calling.”
When Van Tol left his home in Pincher Creek, Alberta in 1987, he wasn’t so sure baseball was his calling. He told his baseball coach at Treasure Valley Community College to let him know if he had what it took to make it in baseball. If not, he’d return to Canada and play hockey.
“The rest is history, I’ve been a baseball guy ever since,” he said.
Van Tol said he would eventually like the opportunity to land a full-time paying coaching job at the professional ranks.
Fleita said Van Tol has displayed that he is ready for such a job and would be at the top of the Cubs’ list.
“He’s certainly put himself in a position,” Fleita said.
Right now, however, Van Tol is content being around the game, whether in a paid position or not.
“The game has done so much for me,” he said. “It’s taken me around the world, I’ve played at a high level, I’ve met tremendous people, I’ve worked with tremendous players. You can’t ask for anything more. In return, the game has taken care of me, so I cherish that and respect it totally. It’s a big part of my life.”